The Promised Land (2024)

Calling The Promised Land riveting may be a difficult ask on the surface of it all. A film focusing on an 18th century army captain turned farmer on arid land in order to claim nobility he feels he so rightly deserves doesn’t exactly scream “edge of your seat”. But, alas, the mix of one Mads Mikkelsen, co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (Riders of Justice) and director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), The Promised Land captivates like few films of its ilk do.

It’s 1755, Denmark. Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen) has spent the last two decades serving in Germany. Living on a meagre captain’s pension, he approaches the Danish monarchy with a proposition; to cultivate the uninhabitable Jutland heath, a longtime obsession for the King. In return for his success, he asks for a noble title along with an estate of his own, replete with servants. Heading into the heath with nothing but the king’s blessing, Kahlen begins to toil, to make the land bend to his own whims, and in doing so comes into direct conflict with vicious landowner Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who claims the land as his own. De Schinkel’s own servants, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and Johannes Eriksen (Morton See Andersen) seek refuge on Kahlen’s patch of land, agreeing to help with Kahlen’s objectives in exchange for protection. In the midst of Kahlen’s challenges with both the heath and De Schinkel, a young Romani thief, Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg) manages to steal her way into Kahlen’s life, making up the core of a makeshift family of bastards. 

Kahlen is a man of straight lines and starch. Everything must have order to it, even when wrestling with the unpredictability and unforgiving bent of mother nature. One could mistake his belief that he can corral chaos into order as intense arrogance, but it passes as more of a matured naivety. He believes forthrightly that, much like the heath itself, he can tame his destiny and almost nullify the chaos of his upbringing. It’s this personal philosophy that smashes up against the weedy tyranny of De Schinkel, a man child who uses his own personal philosophy that everything is chaos, to do as he pleases, taking what doesn’t belong to him and feeding an ever growing thirst for violence and rape. It’s this clash that accentuates Kahlen’s naivety even further, his retort of “this land belongs to the King” becoming almost laughable. It’s obvious early on that he believes in empiricism, and yet, he has almost unyieldingly blind faith in the nobility and monarchy that chooses hedonism and pomp above all else. 

More than any other element, it’s Anmai Mus who inadvertently challenges his notion of order and control. The small Romani is a vessel full of beans and profanity who brings much needed life and energy to Kahlen’s dreary, rigid existence. So too does Ann Barbara act as a destabilising factor in Kahlen’s pursuits, pushing back against the former captain, offering him a glimpse at something he never had, and the possibility of attaining something more valuable than any notion of nobility could offer.

The adaptation of Ida Jessen’s novel, The Captain and Ann Barbara is a wildly compelling underdog story and character study of a man trying to tame the harshness of nature while shedding the harshness within his own heart to cultivate and protect the family that circumstances have brought to him. It’s another reminder of how Hollywood boxes Mikkelsen into villainy whereas the Danes have complete faith in his array of capabilities. As Kahlen, he plays with both a humility and rigidness that only the army can instil in oneself. He earns his likability slowly yet surely, as sparks of warmth and humanity begin to shine behind the eyes and the love of family take hold, even in the harshness of a Jutland moorland winter or the viciousness of a barbaric landowner. 

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